Briefly describe the work you do.
I use embroidery to investigate cultural and environmental issues. Mixing a variety of source materials such as scientific data and early explorer’s journals, I stitch words and phrases on velvet and silk fabrics to make large narrative wall hangings.
My recent projects examine geophysical climate issues. Instigated by a series of collaborations with scientists, I explore simple explanations for some of the important principles in climate and environmental science.
Tell us about your background and how that has had an influence on your work and on you as an artist.
I grew up in a Chicago suburb. During the summer before junior year of high school, my family moved to Zaire (Dem. Rep. of Congo). This experience had a huge impact on my life and gave me an unusual perspective on political issues.
I have a background in statistics and marketing research. One of my sisters inspired me to make a traditional pieced bed quilt. My patience wasn’t great and I started cutting out the shapes of Chicago buildings for a small wall hanging of the skyline. When a close friend died of breast cancer in the early 1990’s, I used bras and dye-transferred text to compose my requiem. Standing nearby at an exhibit, I enjoyed hearing people laugh at the bras, and then start talking about breast cancer experiences. When this work was rejected by a quilt show, I entered it in art shows. The Illinois Arts Council gave me a couple of artist fellowship grants which greatly encouraged me to keep working on personal and political themes.
I’m very excited about working on artist/scientist projects. It’s rewarding to learn about new research in environmental science and interact with researchers and other artists who are engaged with science. The projects provide material for many years past their defined calendar. This year I worked on Fires of Change, an NEA funded project about wildfire. Eleven artists joined fire scientists and land managers at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for a week of education and training on the impacts of wildfire. We had a year to complete our work and the exhibition opened in September.
The concept of the artist studio has a broad range of meanings in contemporary practice. Artists may spend much of their time in the actual studio, or they may spend very little time in it. Tell us about your individual studio practice and how it differs from or is the same as traditional notions of “being in the studio.”
I spend a lot of time in my studio working on several projects simultaneously. Starting with a research phase, I collect and organize the project’s concepts and materials. For assembly, I arrange fabrics on a 24’ wide Celotex pin-up wall. At various stages the fabrics return to a table for basting or hand stitching, or go to a sewing machine for hand-guided embroidery.
I also make collages using text and transfers on paper topographic maps. These works are long on planning, material gathering and editing, and quicker to complete than my large textile pieces.
What roles do you find yourself playing that you may not have envisioned yourself in when you first started making art?
advertising and promotion, website production, writing, digital photo management, speaking, printing, scheduling, exhibition preparation, packing, shipping, framing
When do you find is the best time to make art? Do you set aside a specific time everyday or do you have to work whenever time allows?
A typical day starts off with 1-2 hours of exercise (cross country skiing in winter or road biking in summer). I work in the studio for the rest of the day, and return to it after dinner.
How has your work changed in the past five years? How is it the same?
I use more embroidery and more numeric content in some of my work. Some of the same themes provoke my interest over a long period of time because my work emerges from life experiences and these evolve gradually: the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, environmental science topics, and a number of political issues.
How have people such as family, friends, writers, philosophers, other artists or even pop icons had an impact on the work you do?
Living near Chicago was crucial to my integration into an art community and development as an artist. There were several nonprofit galleries which hosted my earlier work. A monthly critique group and gallery openings with other Chicago artists helped me develop a sense of where my work fit into the art world.
Have you ever been pulled in the direction of a pursuit other than being an artist? What are your other interests?
Being outdoors and physically active every day as well as lengthy summer backpacking trips are a priority that takes time away from the studio but give me energy and space for creative thought.
Bonnie Peterson has received multiple grants from the Illinois Arts Council, and other awards. Her work is in the collection of the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC, the National Park Service, private collections, and she has an extensive exhibition record. She was an Artist-In-Residence at Yosemite, Rocky Mountain, Isle Royale, and Crater Lake National Parks. She has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Illinois-Urbana and an MBA from DePaul University.
All images copyright of the artist and used with their permission.